“Stay in the bag,” the stranger told me. I had no idea what was going on, but from the tone in his voice I could tell he thought it was serious. The first thing I noticed was that my face was sore and swollen, my front teeth jagged, my mouth unpleasantly full of grit. And, indeed, I was in a bag. Somehow I was inside my sleeping bag, inside my bivy sack, next to a dirt road somewhere in British Columbia. I started testing my brain, running through some mental math, reciting my social security number. Everything seemed to check out and I started moving around again. “Stay in the bag.”
Slowly the picture started to emerge. I must have had an accident. After a while I noticed my bike sitting on the side of the road and that brought back to me what I had been doing. Six or seven hours earlier I had departed from Banff—along with 180 other hearty souls—to attempt the Tour Divide mountain bike race. I still don’t know the particulars of how I crashed, but descending Elk Pass in cold, wet conditions I must have gone over the bars.
My left cheek took the brunt of the impact, opening an impressive gash scarily close to eye. I cracked three teeth and tore up my face a bit in two other places, but the wounds were amazingly mild compared to what could have happened. The stranger talking to me was another racer. One link in an as yet unending chain of good luck, he was also a doctor. He told me later that when he found me I didn’t know my name or where I was, but I was trying to get back on the bike. I can’t lie, that made me smile.
Had I crashed on day 2, when we were more spread out, I might have been alone for hours. Wandering around dazed and bloody in an area known as the Grizzly Bear Highway, that probably wouldn’t have been good. Dave the doctor had activated the SOS function on my SPOT GPS tracker (we were hours from cell service) and put me in the bag to stay warm while we awaited help.
I don’t know how long he and another racer waited with me, but it was long enough that they built a fire to stay warm. It must have been a couple hours at the least. I wanted to tell them to keep racing, that I would be fine to wait for help, but even in my hazy state I could tell that was not going to happen. Instead they waited patiently, chatting amiably and watching a steady stream of racers passing them by. By and by, another Dave arrived, this one a cop in a 4 x 4. My stuff got loaded into the truck, I thanked my saviors profusely and we started off for an ambulance that was waiting down the road.
Already I knew that I would be okay and that I had been extremely lucky not to break any bones, not to mention my neck or spine. Deb, the sweet nurse in the ambulance, began the long process of cleaning my very dirty wounds while we bumped along the dirt road. She told me we would be heading to the hospital in Fernie and that Dave would meet us there with my stuff.
We arrived to a blissfully quiet ER and the amazingly kind Dr. Ma got to work on my face. 4 or 5 hours and 27 stitches later she informed me I had better stay overnight in the hospital, concussed as I was. How much would that cost, I wondered out loud. “Oh, I didn’t even think about that,” she replied, having forgotten I was not a Canadian. She paused a moment and replied “We just won’t charge you.” I was taken aback and also kind of worried that she would somehow get in trouble, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue the point. Her kindness and generosity set the tone for how I would be treated for the rest of my time in Canada.
I used the hospital WiFi to book a hotel room and late the next morning I packed up my things and headed there. I must have been quite a sight, heavily bandaged and black eyed, walking my bag laden bike down the shoulder of the highway. I had picked the hotel based on price and proximity, but I knew before I was even inside that it was the right spot. In front was a bike washing station and next door was a dentist’s office.
If you like mountains, rivers, trails, natural beauty or amazing people, you should go to Fernie. Completely encircled by the Rocky Mountains, it is a paradise of about 4000 citizens, pretty much all of whom will smile at you and talk at length about any topic, unhurried and genuine.
I knew pretty quickly that the race was over for me. In order to resume, I would have had to somehow retrace the 80 or so miles to the site of the accident. I couldn’t picture being back to racing strength (or able to eat regular food) for at least a few more days, by which point I would be far behind the back of the pack. More to the point, it didn’t sound fun any more.
The Tour Divide race is invariably and rightly described as epic. Starting in Banff it traces the spine of North America, covering about 2700 miles of mostly dirt roads as it winds toward the finish in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. I had put in a lot of training and preparation to reach the starting line, and before my crash all was going well—my legs feeling strong, my spirit prepared to accept the punishment that was sure to come, my soul craving the adventure and unknown. It was hard to let go of a dream as big as that one, but there was nothing else to do.
Miraculously, my beloved Stinner (her name is Celeste) had come through the crash all but unscathed. On the second day after the crash I rode her into town to get checked over. My wounds throbbed with even the mild exertion, but I was relieved to discover that being on the bike still felt like home. Celeste had faired a lot better than I, just a frayed derailleur cable and a bent hanger. With a rideable bike and a rapidly healing body, I started formulating a plan.
Five days after the crash the stitches came out. Realizing he’d have to charge me $700 for an ER visit, the doctor told me “just go home.” Oh, Canada. Eleven days after the crash my teeth got fixed, the dentist volunteering to do most of the work for free because “you’re from out of town.” Twelve days after the crash I bid a fond farewell to Fernie and got back on the road.
My first ride was about 100 miles into Whitefish, MT. I had definitely lost some fitness while sitting around in Fernie (I did explore their copious dirt roads, but mostly I was resting). Still, it felt good to be moving again. Day two was 130 miles into Missoula, it being important to me to prove that I was not too weakened. It was a hot day, and a long day, but when I finished it was with that rush of endorphins and happiness to which I have long been addicted.
Having proven to myself whatever I wanted to prove, I’ve been taking it a bit easier since then, appreciating the fact that I’m not racing and enjoying the beauty of so many places I’ve never been. Sunday was 100 extremely hot miles into Bozeman. Today it’s Thursday and I’m sitting in Jackson, WY. I rented a car in Bozeman to better explore Yellowstone and for a respite from the heat. Tomorrow I’ll get back on the bike and start making my way toward Boulder, CO, where friends and more mountains await.
It may seem strange to say, but it is entirely clear to me that crashing was the best thing that could have happened. There is not room here to share all of the amazing things I have seen since then nor the amazing people who have entered my life. All I know is that I wasn’t supposed to race this year, I was supposed to crash. The best way I can put it is that the whole trip has been accidentally perfect.